Companies tout XML for fed market

Can this emerging standard meet high expectations?

"We've really been pushing XML," said John Taylor, marketing director of U.S. Operations for Software AG. For Taylor and others, XML is an important tool for connecting disparate systems.

Artesia's XML development work was the key to the company winning a National Guard e-learning contract. | Sebastian Holst, Artesia vice president of marketing

Even computer-savvy users of the Web site for the Department of Inspections, License and Permits in Harford County, Md., wouldn't suspect they're interacting with a legacy computer system when they apply for permits. But that's exactly what they are doing when their Web browsers access a 1988 IBM mainframe-powered Customer Information Control System that handles the county's permit database.

The county's legacy back end is bridged to the Web by extensible markup language, or XML, a set of standards developed by the World Wide Web Consortium for identifying common elements of documents to transfer data between different systems.

The county didn't want to replace its permits database because it was customized to its specific needs, but the county needed to extend the system to citizens , said Dawn Haag, program analyst for Harford County's information systems office and team leader for the project.

So Harford County chose an XML-based solution provided by Netherlands-based Seagull. For $100,000, the county extended its database into the Web at a fraction of the cost of a new system.

The county's approach is just one of many uses for XML, which government agencies are adapting to smooth the flow of information everywhere from Congress to the Pentagon. Launched in 1996, this open standard is being touted as the lingua franca of the computer world.

"Anybody can manipulate XML documents on any platform, on any language whatsoever," said John Taylor, marketing director for U.S. operations of Software AG of Darmstadt, Germany. "If I'm working with an organization with Cobol programmers on the mainframe, they can manipulate XML documents in Cobol. And if I have an XML document to send them, it can be from a PeopleSoft system or a SAP one or from something I built myself. I know there will be a way to process it."

"XML is everywhere. It's penetrated the market lines of all the big vendors," said Joseph Gollner, president of XIA Information Architects Corp., an Ottawa-based XML integration company. Gollner estimated the global market for XML tools and services will reach $500 million in 2001.

There's plenty of interest in the government. Taylor said when he gave an XML demonstration for government Web masters and chief information officers in Austin, Texas, last November, he had an eager audience.

"They weren't attending just because they wanted to experiment with XML," he said. "It wasn't about wanting to work with XML, it was about needing to do so. They've got shortened schedules and increased demands. They're looking for ways that are most beneficial, most efficient to meet these demands."

In February 2001, the U.S. CIO Council created a portal (www.xml.gov) that helps agencies use XML.

In August, Congress, the Library of Congress and the Government Printing Office developed XML definitions to make it easier to track bills as they wind their way through Congress. (See xml.house.gov.)

Other XML projects are under way at the departments of Energy and Health and Human Services, and at the Patent and Trademark Office.

But the XML standard does have its critics. Freelance interface developer Steve Klingsporn, who has worked for Apple Computer Inc., Cupertino, Calif., and Netscape Communications Corp., ex-pressed doubt that XML would be widely deployed by fellow developers.

Programmers will find it difficult to organize the data structures of their applications in a way that meets XML specifications, he said.

Also, he noted security concerns, especially how the instructions sent by XML from one application to another travel over a network unencrypted.

Even XML supporters admit that the hype can be too much. In the essay, "Three Myths of XML," which appeared on the XML.Com portal, developer Kendall Grant Clark said claims about XML's abilities to do what couldn't be done before are "magical thinking."

For instance, the project to track congressional bills could be completed even without using XML . Clark also said XML is a subset of the government's older, more complex format, the standard generalized markup language, and questioned what XML can accomplish that SGML can't.

One task contractors have found XML can do easily and inexpensively is connect legacy systems with graphical user interfaces, including the Web, Taylor said. The standard keeps the price down and ensures accessibility.

"Large agencies across the board have existing systems in place. They can't afford to scrap systems or build new ones. They've got to make what they have work today," he said.

Software AG, long a player in the enterprise-level database market, has repositioned itself as a vendor of XML databases, middleware and other enterprise-level XML-enabled software.

"We've really been pushing XML," Taylor said. In December 2000, the company won a contract with the California State Board of Equalization to develop a Web-based tax filing system for businesses that utilized an accounting system already in place.

Another company using XML to develop middleware is Vitria Technology Inc., Sunnyvale, Calif. In November, Vitria introduced its Value Chain Markup Language, an XML definition for purchase orders, invoices and other transactions that replace electronic date interchange specifications.

The company is marketing this language to the Department of Defense's Collaborative Defense Department, an initiative to cut costs and improve response times by bringing commercial best practices to the department's logistics management.

The new possibilities XML presents may go far beyond extending the life spans of legacy systems. A chief advantage of XML is that it provides the ability for developers to define their own tags that instruct applications how to interpret the data. The Defense Department developed an XML-based standard, called Sharable Content Object Reference Model, or Scorm, that allows e-learning content to be used across multiple end-user devices, The Army National Guard has used Scorm as the basis for its Distributive Training Technology Project, which will provide online, on-demand, multimedia e-learning materials to reserve members across the country in formats such as text and video.

In November, the National Guard chose a team, lead by document asset management software provider Artesia Technologies, Rockville, Md., to implement this system. The team also includes Internet-caching provider Inktomi Corp., Foster City, Calif., and video-application provider Virage Inc., San Mateo, Calif.

Sebastian Holst, vice president of marketing for Artesia, said the key to the National Guard win was the upfront work the company already completed in XML. As a provider of enterprisewide digital management solutions, Artesia used XML to index media formats, ranging from sound files to video, banking that this open standard would be used widely in the future.

With the National Guard contract, that approach paid off. "We put in tens of millions of dollars of development for our digital asset management, and with very small incremental effort we had it speak Scorm," Holst said.

Once the National Guard material is divided into modules, it can be transmitted to training facilities capable of displaying videos and other content, or to handheld devices, which will receive stripped-down, text-only versions of the material, he said.

Plus, since the material is modular, changes can easily be made without republishing the entire set of coursework, saving the National Guard time and money as well.

Artesia isn't the only company mining the market being generated for Scorm. In November, e-learning software provider SkillSoft Corp., Nashua, N.H., won a cooperative research and development agreement with the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division to investigate ways of reformatting approximately 8,000 weeks worth of video training to a Web-based instruction.

This project, called Red Knot, will encode the training material in XML using SkillSoft's tool set.

Staff Writer Joab Jackson can be reached at jjackson@postnewsweektech.com

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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